Friday, September 27, 2013

The Life and Death of Vaudeville

Fred Allen (1894–1956)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

Fred Allen with dummy, circa 1916. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When comedian and radio personality Fred Allen died in 1956, The New York Journal-American ran his obituary in three installments over three consecutive days. The writer summarized Allen’s peripatetic career:
In his 45 years of trying to make the world laugh, about 25 of which he spent succeeding, the writer-comedian with the bellhop eyes (“they carry up to four bags”) covered the country but never really settled down. He never owned a house or a car because “they make me nervous,” but he “dwelt” in many places. . . . He spent years in Hollywood making pictures, but he spoke of California thus: “The climate is fine. If you’re an orange, it’s ideal.” . . .

His mind, which could dig right to the heart of matters and usually bring out the humor in them, caused him confusion and headaches. For instance, though he left a legacy of 4,000 books on humor in his library, he never could figure out why people laughed. “It’s mysterious,” he once said. “I know how to make people laugh—and I know approximately when they’ll laugh—but I haven’t the vaguest idea why they laugh.”
Allen got his start in vaudeville in the years prior to World War I; he was billed as “The World’s Worst Juggler.” In the early 1950s, after he retired as host of the radio program The Fred Allen Show, his friend S. J. Perelman branded him “The Great Sourpuss”—and he meant it fondly. Allen wrote his own material, with only occasional help of a series of assistants (one of whom, for five years, was future novelist Herman Wouk. Allen’s prolificacy was such that he once quipped that he was “probably the only writer in the world who has written more than he could lift.” 

Just prior to his death in 1956, he had been working on Much Ado About Me, a memoir covering the two decades of his career as a stage performer, before his transition to radio during the early years of the Depression. The nearly completed manuscript (which ends in the year 1928) was rushed to press after his death and includes the following selection, which recalls the glory days of vaudeville.

Notes: Most of Allen’s vaudevillian allusions are clear from context. Among the more obscure references: Kimberley is the capital of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, an area noted for its history of diamond mining; thus, Kimberley gravel (page 568). The comedy duo Olsen and Johnson (p. 577) were John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson; their heyday occurred during the waning years of the Depression, when their Broadway show Hellzapoppin' ran for 1,404 performances. Gus Sun (p. 581) was the pseudonym of former circus juggler Gustave Klotz, who became a booking agent for minor vaudeville acts.

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Vaudeville is dead. The acrobats, the animal acts, the dancers, the singers, and the old-time comedians have taken their final bows and disappeared into the wings of obscurity. For fifty years—from 1875 to 1925—vaudeville was the popular entertainment of the masses. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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Friday, September 20, 2013

The Strongest Lady in the World

Red Smith (1905–1982)
From American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

The original York Barbell Company headquarters, located at 51 North Broad Street in York, Pennsylvania, from 1932 to 1958.
In the 1920s Bob Hoffman began selling oil burners in York, Pennsylvania, but his true passion was physical fitness. He initially cofounded a local gym, the York Oil Burner Athletic Club, but by 1932 he left the oil burner business entirely and established the York Barbell Company. Many of his employees followed him into bodybuilding and weightlifting, and Hoffman fielded the American team for the 1932 Olympics. He continued to coach Olympic competitors and sponsor international competitions for nearly four decades.

Although Hoffman’s bodybuilding techniques, business practices, and personal life faced criticism over the years, he is still widely acknowledged as “The Father of American Weightlifting.” He was famously generous to his athletes, hiring many of them as employees in his company (with weekly salaries up to $200 during the postwar years), paying for their travel expenses and housing, and financing their local businesses in the surrounding community. And he was, and still is, renowned for opening the sport to all participants, regardless of race or nationality.

From the earliest years of York Barbell Company, Hoffman included among his stable of competitors a significant proportion of non-white athletes, including many immigrants. In 1948, after record-shattering American victories in two consecutive world championships and at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki, he described his team members as “men of Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian, Russian, British, Austrian, Macedonian, Italian, Polish, and African ancestry. We had men who were brown, white, yellow, and black, we had men who represented many of the popular religions in the world today. Jewish, Catholic and all the branches of the protestant churches.” A number of the trainees, including veterans wounded during World War II, overcame physical disabilities to compete. In the pages of the Journal of Sport History, historian John D. Fair summarizes Hoffman’s legacy: “In this respect he was far ahead of his time, and it constituted an enormous asset in his development of American weightlifting.”

Professor Fair notes elsewhere that Hoffman’s tutelage was not limited to men. “Although Hoffman was by no means the first to advocate weightlifting for women, he did more than anyone to gain acceptance for the principle of heavy training for female athletes.” A number of women were a significant part of the York Barbell family, including his wife and (when the marriage fell apart) several of his girlfriends. One of them, Dorcas Lehman, was a local saloon owner, and she renovated and managed a hotel where Hoffman hosted athletes visiting York for competitive events. She was already billed as “the strongest woman in the world” when Red Smith met the couple in New York in 1947 and wrote the amusing and supportive column we’ve selected for our latest Story of the Week.

Hoffman’s dominant influence in the sport continued through the late 1960s, and he died in 1985 at the age of 86. Lehman dropped out of the York bodybuilding scene and vanished from the public eye during the last half of the century. We recently learned that she died only two years ago in Burbank, California; she would have turned 100 this year. She is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills.

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For a few hours yesterday New York wore, like an orchid in her hair, a flower of femininity named Miss Dorcas Lehman, who is the strongest lady in the world. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, September 13, 2013

“The Nameless Dead”

Kate Cumming (1826–1909)
From The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Kate Cumming. Photo from the frontispiece
of her book Gleanings from Southland.
In 1859, following the experiences in the Crimean War that made her famous, Florence Nightingale wrote and published Notes on Nursing, which became an international sensation. Nightingale’s impact on health professions in general (and, more specifically, on the medical care provided during the American Civil War) was considerable. At the outset of the Civil War, the Union Army was quick to organize its hospital services, appointing Dorothea L. Dix as the Superintendent of Female Nurses in June 1861. Dix in fact tried (and failed) to meet Nightingale on a trip to London; many other women, similarly inspired by Nightingale’s wartime experiences, offered to work as army nurses. Several of the two thousand women who signed up for the Union nurses corps would later become household names, including Clara Barton (the founder of the American Red Cross) and Louisa May Alcott (whose Hospital Sketches recounts her wartime experiences).

Yet, as the late historian Richard Barksdale Harwell noted, “The South was slow in recognizing the desirability of women as regular members of the medical department of the army. For a year and a half the women worked in the hospitals only as volunteers, and few of them had undergone any but home training. It was not until September 1862 that [the First Confederate] Congress granted them official status.” Kate Cumming, one of the early volunteers, complained in April 1862 that doctors would not even let women inside the hospitals. “I only wish that the doctors would let us try and see what we can do! . . . Is not the noble example of Miss Nightingale to pass for nothing? I trust not. What one woman has done, another may do.” Once the Confederate Army officially acknowledged the role of nurses in the war effort, Cumming worked without cease for the duration of the conflict.

An immigrant from Scotland, she later claimed she was born in 1835 (and some sources list her birth year as 1828 or 1829), but records have recently been unearthed indicating that Catherine Cumming was born in Edinburgh in December 1826. Her family lived briefly in Montreal before she ended up in Mobile, Alabama, by 1845. The year after the end of the war, Cumming published her journal as A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, from the battle of Shiloh to the end of the war: with sketches of life and character, and brief notices of current events during that period. In spite of the cumbersome title of Cumming’s book, the encyclopedia Women during the Civil War considers it “one of the best and most thorough personal accounts of work within the Confederate hospital service.” The following excerpt details her experiences following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863).

The following is a list of Civil War figures mentioned by Cumming in her diary:

Page 535: Dr. James F. Heustis (1828–1891) was a surgeon from Mobile.
536: Colonel Arthur St. Clair Colyar (1818–1907) became a member of the Second Confederate Congress, 1864–65.
537: Dr. Benjamin W. Ussery (1829–1894) was a surgeon with the 42nd Tennessee Infantry.
538: Professor Joseph Desha Pickett (1822–1900), a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was the chaplain of the 1st Kentucky Brigade and a former professor of rhetoric. Colonel Harvey W. Walter (1819–1878) served as a judge advocate on the staff of Confederate Army general Braxton Bragg.
539: Dr. Samuel H. Stout (1822–1903) was the superintendent of hospitals for the Army of Tennessee. Neill Smith Brown (1810–1886) was the Whig governor of Tennessee, 1847–49, and U.S. minister to Russia, 1850–53.
540: Major General Thomas C. Hindman (1828–1868) commanded a division in the Army of Tennessee.
541: Brigadier General Arthur M. Manigault (1824–1886) commanded a brigade in Hindman’s division.
542: Captain William J. O’Brien of the Alabama 24th Infantry practiced law in Mobile before the war.
544: Dr. Andrew J. Foard (c. 1829–1868), was the field medical director for the Department of the West. Edward A. Flewellen (1819–1910) was the field medical director for the Army of Tennessee. Brigadier General Zachariah C. Deas (1819–1882, misspelled as Deus) commanded a brigade in Hindman’s division.

The closing paragraph paraphrases James Montgomery’s “Lord Falkland’s Dream” (1831): “‘Can this,’ he sigh’d, ‘be virtuous fame and clear? / Ah! what a field of fratricide is here!’” Falkland (Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland) was a royalist member of Parliament who unsuccessfully sought a negotiated end to the English Civil War before being killed at the first battle of Newbury.

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One day in Spring, six or eight years ago, I received a letter from a man somewhere beyond the Wabash announcing that he had lately completed a very powerful novel and hinting that my critical judgment upon it would give him great comfort. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Portrait of an Immortal Soul

H. L. Mencken (1880–1956)
From H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series

“One Civilized Reader Is Worth a Thousand Boneheads”: the October 1914 cover of The Smart Set—the second issue edited by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. Image courtesy of the Flickr account of Johns Hopkins Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Archives.
In August 1914 H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan became the editors of the magazine The Smart Set, which had been founded at the turn of the century and was experiencing a slump in readership and advertising. The first issue under their management, published in September, retained the subtitle “A Magazine of Cleverness,” but the October issue added on its front cover, “One Civilized Reader Is Worth a Thousand Boneheads” and the November number promised readers “a moderately intelligent and awfully good time.” Subsequent issues continued the whimsical nature of its editorial trappings.

During the next decade, a typical issue of The Smart Set contained up to two dozen short stories, a dozen poems, and one play, along with a scattering of articles and reviews. Mencken and Nathan became famous for discovering, fostering, and reviewing new writers, including the likes of James Branch Cabell, Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eugene O’Neill (whose first published play appeared in its pages). The May 1915 issue introduced American readers to James Joyce with two stories from Dubliners. Several years later much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early fiction, including his first story in a national periodical, was featured by The Smart Set. The magazine also presented now-forgotten authors who were well known in their day, such as the bestselling Arkansas native Thyra Samter Winslow and the pulp-fiction writer Vincent Starrett.

Of course, not all the acolytes and apprentices promoted in the pages of the magazine enjoyed the success of their more famous counterparts. In “The Portrait of an Immortal Soul” Mencken employs his trademark wit to describe his frustration when one of his discoveries completely bombed. Profiting from Mencken’s firm editorial guidance, R. A. Lindsey (writing as Robert Steele) published One Man, a fictionalized memoir of the life of crime that led the author to prison. Mencken plugged Steele’s debut in The Smart Set, but the book's appearance made barely a ripple and it “straightaway died the death.”

Many years later Mencken added a note updating the story:
After the book herein discussed came out I heard nothing more from the author until 1935, when he wrote to me from Wisconsin and then from Chicago. It appeared that he had married, had nine children, and was out of work, and that the whole family was trying to live on a dole of $17.28 a week. He said that he had written another book . . . , but I never heard any more about it.
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Notes: On page 135, Mensch-an-sich means “the man himself.” On the same page, Mencken mentions two of Robert Steele’s literary antecedents. Giovanni Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt (1725–1798; better known simply as Casanova) surely needs no introduction. Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) is the Italian Renaissance artist most remembered for writing a colorful and racy autobiography.

Update: A number of readers have asked if One Man is available today. A facsimile edition is available as a print-on-demand title through Amazon, or you can download it online at the Internet Archive.

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One day in Spring, six or eight years ago, I received a letter from a man somewhere beyond the Wabash announcing that he had lately completed a very powerful novel and hinting that my critical judgment upon it would give him great comfort. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.